Career Change? Traditional Crafts

It is the time of year when many of us reflect on our working lives, whether we have the right balance, and if this next year is time for a change. Retraining for a rewarding career as an upholsterer, furniture restorer or many other traditional crafts can provide that real break from the conformity and convention of working and take your life off in a whole new direction.

It is a difficult economic time and people are once again recognising the importance of making things, hand skills, quality workmanship and heritage as opposed to the disposable culture of the past decade. This coupled with a trend towards reusing and recycling makes it is easy to see why more and more people are investigating the opportunities to retrain in careers where they can work with their hands, be creative and independent.

Quality of Life

Following years of working in uninspiring jobs many people in their mid-life and beyond are retraining, not for more money, but for a rewarding career that affords them a great quality of life.

The majority of people choose their careers in their early twenties at a time when they do not always know what they want, where a strong influence has come from parents or others around. By middle age, a greater sense of "what I really want to do" encroaches on every day working life. Indeed, plodding on in a career that offers no joy can do more than stifle your creativity; health and self-worth can decline, particularly if the thought of doing your job for the next 20 or 30 years fills you with dread.

More fundamentally, considering what will make you happy and what you really want from your career are questions most of us face at some point in our working lives.

Which Career?

Reupholstery has provided the right change for me, from hobby to career, and you may prefer to focus on any number of different crafts, whether from a current pastime or something completely new.

You should sit down and really think, not just about what you would like to do, but what you already do well. If you have a hobby can you turn that into a job? I had always enjoyed restoring furniture, seeking out antiques and bringing them back to life, and upholstery became a natural extension of this hobby. A change in circumstances or latent urge for change in your life is often the trigger to do something more rewarding.


So where do you start? You may already have some skills in the niche you want to specialise. There are many courses available from local colleges and universities at which to begin the transition. Professional qualifications, for instance from the Association of Master Upholsterers and Soft Furnishers, are advisable if you are to run your own business. Depending on your circumstances, part time or full time options are available. More than any of this, you must practice your art to become proficient.

It can be a real challenge and quite daunting going back into education, particularly if you have been doing the same job for many years. However, it simply isn't the case that it will be all youngsters. Many of your fellow students will be training for commercial work and others for traditional or craft work, and come from all age groups.

If upholstery is your choice, be prepared for hands on physical work. Courses include elements of design, restoration, furniture history and personal projects, and perhaps most importantly many professional level courses help you understand how to run your own small business.

Regardless of your choices, if you have a good support network and the will to succeed you can make the successful transition into a new career. However, you must be single minded. At some point in their lives almost everybody will consider changing career and doing something totally different. Very few actually do it.

Running Your Own business

With the downturn in the economy and some people losing their jobs, running your own business can be a great option. With huge numbers of applicants for every job and faced with a role below their experience and skill level, it is easy to see why peoples entrepreneurial spirit has come to the fore. Hobbies are a favourite to turn into a career particularly if they are in a niche sector where demand is resurgent.

You could set up a business at home or from a local unit or workshop. The Internet offers huge opportunities for marketing and more and more at the local level, ideal for businesses operating within and for the local community. Marketing your business locally and online or through social media can give even the smallest of businesses an opportunity to generate new customers. Further, low overheads ensure you minimise your risks when starting out. Long working days don't seem so difficult when you have family around you and you choose the hours to suit your life. It can be hard to imagine, but you can genuinely enjoy each working day.

The business element cannot be underestimated but you can draw on your own experiences from your working life and there is much help nowadays to help with any bureaucracy.

Hurdles to Overcome

Amongst all of the career changers I have encountered, who have turned to traditional crafts as their living, one thread remains the same in that they have no regrets and love the freedom of being their own boss and love what they do every working day.

However, there are many, on-going difficulties. The initial investment cannot be underestimated, whilst in the early days a few relatively inexpensive tools will get you started, more industrial equipment will be required as you progress. But the real cost is the opportunity cost when you retrain. Your loss of income and drop in salary when you first start out takes some adjustment and having a supportive family or network of friends around you is invaluable.

In terms of being taken seriously by suppliers, you may want register your own limited company. However, the majority of upholsterers and other craft businesses operate as sole traders and wholesalers will still supply them in most cases. Further, it is not a niche where you need to carry huge volumes of stock to get trade terms. Again confidence in these areas will come from experience and the knowledge you have collected during your training and life experience.

Something you must have is the ability to deal with clients on a personal level and interpret their requirements. Great interpersonal skills and a professional approach are essential to ensure misunderstandings are kept to a minimum and you can explain the detail and complexity of what you will be doing with their furniture. If you are producing your own work for resale you need to establish the best way to deliver this.

You will likely work on your own at first and have to be able to deal with the solitude and remain motivated, although the ultimate goal may well be to expand and employ and train other people, passing on traditional craft skills to the next generation of upholsterers.

Take Action

If upholstery is not the direction you want to take there are a wide range of other options, whether that be soft furnishings, cabinet making, furniture restoration or some other very niche traditional hand craft.

Upholstery will not make you rich, but the satisfaction you can get from restoring a tired or damaged piece of furniture and returning it to its original state cannot be underestimated. Something so simple can make your working life a joy.

Whether it is a job loss or a lack of satisfaction that provokes the switch it is an opportunity to pursue a pastime, do something you love and spend more quality time with your family. In this context, it is an easy decision.

You can turn a hobby into a business. The key is that you have to act. It has been said many times that when you do something you love, you'll never work again.